Czech officials warn of complacency in fight against HIV/AIDS

People around the world are marking World AIDS Day, and according to the grim statistics, a record number of people became infected this year. The Czech Republic is a country with a "low-level epidemic" - the number of confirmed cases of HIV is in the hundreds, rather than the thousands. However, the real figure could be up to ten times higher, and the authorities are worried that people are becoming increasingly complacent about AIDS.

Vladimir Kovac is 29 and HIV positive. A former drug addict, he became infected three years ago from using dirty needles. Thanks to a daily cocktail of 12 anti-retroviral drugs which stops him developing full-blown AIDS, Vladimir can now live an almost normal life. Today, he spends his time educating young people about the risks of HIV infection:

"Sometimes the discrimination that HIV positive people face is ridiculous. During one visit to a primary school, I was ordered to stand five metres away from the children. Another time I wanted an IT firm to come and remove a virus from my computer, and they refused."

But despite these and other experiences, Vladimir says he's determined to carry on spreading the message about HIV.

Jaroslav Jedlicka, AIDS Programme Manager at Prague's National Institute of Public Health, says awareness is relatively high in the Czech Republic. However, he believes people are also becoming complacent:

"The awareness does exist, but HIV infection is underestimated by Czech citizens. It's underestimated because they know the figures. The chance of meeting an HIV positive partner here is relatively very low. So they underestimate the risk, and don't use protection."

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK There are 652 registered cases of HIV in this country, 171 of whom have developed full-blown AIDS. But the real number could be ten times higher. The task of estimating the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Czech Republic falls to the Institute's Marie Bruckova, from the National AIDS Reference laboratory:

"I wouldn't say this is a huge or shocking difference. Ten times more is not so much. There are even some people who estimate we have more than ten times - fifteen times. We can only do some rough estimation."

The Czech Republic - like Central Europe as a whole - is in a far better position than countries further east. But officials warn of a dangerous paradox: because the number of registered cases is so low, people become complacent, and don't practice safe sex. Because they don't practice safe sex, the spread of HIV increases. The problem is, we don't know by how much.